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My experience with Philip Ochieng, the master wordsmith and perfection freak

By Wambua Sammy | April 28th 2021

The late veteran Journalist and columnist Philip Ochieng. He died at Ombo Mission Hospital on April 28, 2021. [Courtesy]

His legs on the huge desk revealing fine linen socks and pricey footwear was the man that was supposed to interview me for a reporter’s job.

It would be a job with what would be Kenya’s biggest media concern by way of a joint venture between the Kanu-owned Kenya Times and Robert Maxwell’s media empire that included the Mirror Group.

When he lowered the thick-rimmed glasses below a pair of piercing eyes, he wondered whether I had ever published anything whereupon I produced a Kenya Times press cutting of a letter to the editor.

It was something about Kanu going the Russian communist party’s way if it didn’t reform from within.

Impressed, he said, “I’m giving you the job because you are among the few reporters who can use the word ‘stymied’ correctly.”

The job never happened. It was, as Ochieng would say, it was “put paid to” by, among other things, Prof Wangari Maathai’s opposition to the erection of a 60-storey edifice on Uhuru Park that would have been the head offices of Kenya Times Media Trust in the joint venture.

Maxwell would die in 1991 and an inquest would hear that he died of a combination of a heart attack and drowning as he cruised on the Mediterranean aboard his yacht, Lady Ghislaine. But, it wasn’t lost to observers that he had been accused of misappropriating the Mirror Group’s pension fund.

Philip Ochieng, who died  Tuesday night, wasn’t your modern editor who didn’t shout at a goofing reporter. At the Nation, where I found him in charge of quality, you got it wrong and from one corner of the newsroom, he would yell “Wambua, ignorance will kill you!” 

If you were new, that would have you put your act together.

Woe unto you if you insisted on explaining why you wrote “in order to” instead of just “to”, especially if you started your explanation with “I think…”. Invariably, the response would be: “Leave thinking to thinkers!”

But the tautology-intolerant Ochieng wasn’t a malicious boss bent on killing young talent. The mean demeanour was meant to create a top-notch journalist from a greenhorn, which is why after the tongue-lashing he wasn’t averse to buying you a pint.

The quest for intellectual "omnivorosity" and perfection in journalism pushed Ochieng into an obsession with quality books. So, a quote from the English physicist’s A Brief History of Time was not out of place in a well-argued piece about Kenya’s political backwardness.

The ordinary reader would be at sea trying to make sense of some of Ochieng’s writing but, like the Nigerian literary giant Wole Soyinka, Ochieng was unapologetic to complainants. And blithely so. 

His stock-in-trade response was that he didn’t write for intellectual Lilliputians and would you please read the other sections of the paper… recipes, sports, horoscopes etc.

I particularly loved engaging him in arguments. So, when over goulash and bun at some restaurant in Lonrho House I told him he was the only remaining Marxist after the collapse of The Soviet Union, it was “ignorance will kill you!”

I would be taken through Karl Marx’s view of history as a series of dialectical contradictions and how whatever was going on in Russia was part of that before the real communism would be realised.  On that, we disagreed. Communism was dodo-dead.

But, if there is something Ochieng found difficult to explain was his apparent tolerance of muck-raking as the Kenya Times’ Editor-in-Chief.

Before and after the 1992 elections, a column christened Kanu Briefs was used to smear anti-Kanu politicians and intellectuals with all manner of sleaze.

It had no byline so, you wouldn’t know who was/were the writers. Obviously, the Editor-in-Chief knew everything about it, including its departure from professionalism.

When I asked him about that blemish on his person and professional history, he told me he didn’t know who wrote it.

There was a rider, though: That a newspaper has to balance the interests of its owners, its readership and the government of the day.

Surprisingly, Ochieng didn’t hold a university degree although the title “Doctor” wouldn’t have sounded strange on the man who quit Roosevelt University before graduation.

“Nobody is qualified to examine me,” he would tell curious inquirers.

But like many beneficiaries of the Kennedy-Mboya airlifts of the 50s and  60s, Barack Obama Snr style, Obama did leave a child behind in America.

In The 5th Columnist, A legendary Journalist, his biographer Liz Gotonga-Wanjohi informs us that “while at Roosevelt University Ochieng married Nova Diane, an African –American woman.” His daughter Juliette Akinyi would, decades later, trace him through the internet.


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